Q&A: How digitally connecting a continent could transform Africa

Jean Philbert Nsengimana, special adviser at Smart Africa and former Rwanda ICT minister. Photo by: J.M. Planche / ITU / CC BY

BARCELONA — African governments, corporations, and development groups want to build a single digital market on the continent — a unified space aimed at boosting integration and development. A key organization behind this push is Smart Africa, an alliance of 22 governments, international organizations including the World Bank, the African Union Commission, and the United Nations, as well as private sector firms such as Microsoft, Intel and Inmarsat.

Earlier this year, Smart Africa’s steering committee approved a series of major initiatives that includes strategies to increase bandwidth affordability and capacity across the continent, to further interconnect it through submarine and terrestrial links, and to eliminate roaming charges.

Speaking to Devex at Barcelona’s Mobile World Congress, Jean Philbert Nsengimana, special adviser at Smart Africa and Rwanda ICT minister from 2011 to 2017, discussed what these initiatives will mean for the continent’s digital transformation. He also offered insights into opportunities opening up for prospective financial and technical partners in the ICT space.

The following conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

What are the top priorities of the 2018 Action Plan, which was approved this February?

We want to increase the membership basis and step up efforts to bring investments into the continent. Our goal is to attract $300 billion by 2025 with a view to deploying [ICT] infrastructures, developing applications, and training youth.

Another priority is to implement the One Africa Network — Open Waves initiative, a key flagship program in partnership with Global Voice Group. It is aimed at removing roaming charges within regions and ultimately across the continent.

Right now, a lot of the [voice, SMS, and data] traffic is being routed via carriers that take it outside the continent and back down to Africa. Yet there is no technical or economical reason for this beyond the fact that networks have been configured this way. We want to correct that: We will start by managing the traffic of voice and SMS, and later on data.

This February, Smart Africa’s steering committee also approved the bulk purchase of internet and satellite capacity. What is the aim of this new initiative and how will it be implemented?

The cost of connectivity remains a major barrier to broadband penetration in the continent, so the aim of this initiative is to lower the cost at which the countries within our alliance access bandwidth. The project is based on a regional connectivity initiative conducted in East Africa with support of the World Bank.

Countries that want to be part of this arrangement will aggregate their demand to be in a better bargaining position with international carriers. No contracts have been signed yet, so figures will become clear as we move forward.

Will all 22 member countries take part in these bulk purchases?

“Creating this single digital market is the overall mission of Smart Africa.”

— Jean Philbert Nsengimana, special adviser at Smart Africa

It is a voluntary arrangement for the time being —what is really mandatory for members is to join the One Africa Network. However, as we connect our physical infrastructure, it becomes clear to everyone that the next logical step is to engage in the bulk purchase of bandwidth and even to start running some shared applications. Creating this single digital market is the overall mission of Smart Africa.

In parallel, our alliance member Liquid Telecom is accelerating the deployment of land internet connections between major African cities — Africa Digital Corridor — and it is connecting Cape to Cairo via the Red Sea — Liquid Sea.

What are the next steps, and the expected development outcomes of these various initiatives?

The next step is execution, so we are setting out to identify implementing partners for the projects that require them.

In terms of outcomes, every 10 percent increase in broadband penetration results in 1.3 percent increase in gross domestic product, according to research. The digital transformation brings about a positive economic impact, but also social and development ones, such as advancing financial inclusion and transforming education.

“Putting the private sector first” is one of five principles of the Smart Africa manifesto. What are you looking for in private partners and how can they benefit from partnering with the alliance?

We are looking for partners whose technologies have already been tried in some country. Then, we can help them accelerate the scale-up in other ones. This February, for example, our steering committee approved the public-private partnership framework to build smart cities across the continent, a document developed alongside our member Inmarsat.

Governments are expected to provide what they have in terms of infrastructures, regulations and land, but they must also bring in financing partners and implementing companies with the necessary technologies.

An enabling environment is key to engaging the private sector. How is Smart Africa fostering it in the face of challenges such as unfriendly tax regimes and lack of national ICT plans?

We have concluded an agreement with the World Bank to help five countries — yet to be selected — develop or update their national ICT strategies this year. The program is funded by the Korea Trust Fund.

On the regulatory side, we recently launched the Council of African Regulators. Up until now, there was no platform that allowed telecom regulators to meet, exchange experiences, and listen to the concerns of the private sector.

There is a lot of work to be done: Building capacity to regulate the Fourth Industrial Revolution, including 5G, the internet of things and drones; removing unnecessary taxes from devices, and also strengthening our capacity to protect the revenue of regulators. Currently, there is a lot of grey traffic and fraud in the telecommunications sector.

What other strategies is Smart Africa using to help member countries mobilize funds?

We come up with fundable projects. Each member country must develop a national and a pan-African blueprint for a chosen flagship area, and then reach out to potential investors.

“The [Rwanda Smart Cities] national program is pushing forward smart mobility, utilities, and services. Over 90 percent of government services are available online and we are also fostering cashless payments.”

We started with the Smart Cities flagship in Kigali, Rwanda, last year, and we have already attracted partners from Dubai, the United States, and South Africa. The national program is pushing forward smart mobility, utilities, and services. Over 90 percent of government services are available online and we are also fostering cashless payments.

Smart Africa helps member countries mobilize funding. Is it considering innovative financing mechanisms?

We are considering these mechanisms, including cryptocurrency-based modes.

The 2018 Transform Africa Summit will be held in Kigali in May under the theme “Accelerating Africa’s single digital market.” What are the key challenges to achieving this unified market?

“I envision a continent that is connected, data-driven, and where ICT is used as a tool for inclusiveness.”

The lack of ICT infrastructure, digital illiteracy, and the fact that many services and products are not online, yet. We know the benefits of being connected, but there are many hundreds of millions of Africans that are still excluded. Also, some people are connected, but they only use their phone to make regular calls, whereas it could become their bank account.

Inclusiveness is another issue, which the event will address through the Smart Women Summit. There is a huge gender gap in the continent and we need to make decisive efforts to close it.

What is your vision for the digital transformation of Africa in the next five years?

I envision a continent that is connected, data-driven, and where ICT is used as a tool for inclusiveness. That is, as a means to extending critical services to citizens and closing different types of gaps, be them rural-urban, gender or income inequalities.

I also envision a continent that, for the first time, stops importing applications and services developed outside and starts getting on the production side of the equation.

And what will it take to achieve this?

Leadership, partnership, and profits.

About the author

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    Gloria Pallares

    Gloria Pallares is a journalist reporting on sustainable development, global health and humanitarian aid from Africa and Europe. Her work has appeared in a range of publications including El Pais, Forbes, CIFOR’s Forest News and the leading media outlets in Spain via the multimedia newswire Europa Press.